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Medical Research Studies Sometimes Bring Questions Instead of Answers

A recently released study performed by medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic (and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine) provides insight into the problem of incidental findings. Incidental findings – those unrelated to the subject being studied – are present in nearly 40% of exam results analyzed in the Mayo Clinic survey.

Researchers have to tread carefully when deciding what course of action to take if confronted by an incidental finding. Oftentimes anomalies are simply ignored, even if they could potentially signal an underlying condition. In fact, the Mayo Clinic study showed that incidental findings were present in more than 500 of the nearly 1,500 research imaging exams that were reviewed, but only 35 of them were acted upon.

The dilemma for researching physicians is that they could inadvertently violate their own Hippocratic oath by following up on an incidental finding. It is possible – and it was proven in three examples seen in the Mayo Clinic study – that medical intervention could actually leave the patient in a worse position than he or she was in initially. Most of the time any perceived benefit is so small as to be negligible, and those situations far outnumber the ones with clearly positive results. This same dilemma confronts practicing physicians every day, as a test for one condition could very well uncover proof of a different and completely unexpected one.

In the research context, there is also the risk that a research study participant who is ultimately diagnosed with some condition unrelated to the study might end up being disqualified. No researcher wants to jeopardize his or her own research by losing eligible participants, especially since it is often difficult to find statistically relevant sample sizes to begin with.

The doctor is ultimately responsible for making the decision about whether to follow up on an incidental finding or not, and it is possible that action or a lack thereof could cause significant detriment to a patient. If you or a loved one has suffered harm arising from an incidental finding, you should contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney in your area to learn more about your legal rights and options.